Black Religion Since Slavery
Atlanta Black Star published an article by G. Thorpe stating black people developed five prominent Christian practices from slavery. The article is in step with a fairly common objection within the black community as to why blacks shouldn’t be Christians: Christianity is a European religion used to subdue Africans during slavery, and strip them of their culture.
It is historically true many Europeans misused Christianity to oppress blacks, but insisting blacks have embraced a European faith is to ignore the origins, historical development, and current geographical spread of Christianity. You can find Thorpe’s article here:
He makes five points I wish to address:
1. Before slavery, Africans portrayed Jesus as dark-skinned. Since slavery, blacks now use a white image of Jesus.
Yes, it’s true; Jesus wasn’t white. He was a Middle Eastern Jew—not a European. Christians of all races should recognize the common depiction of Jesus as a European man is a false image. However, it is also true Jesus was not a dark-skinned African man. Therefore, the image of “Black Jesus” is equally false and misleading. We must avoid using Jesus’ skin color as a way to promote our racial pride or fallen notions of racial superiority. Moreover, if we insist Jesus share our skin color before we trust in him, then this proves we are not willing to worship him as he is, but only interested in creating a god to suit our tastes. We simply do not know what Jesus looked like. We would do well not to put any stock in any image of Jesus, as it will ultimately be a false image.
2. Africans were taught to reject their traditional African religions.
This objection assumes all religions are to be equally celebrated and accepted. Therefore, black people should accept and celebrate what was traditionally African religion, and they should have never embraced a foreign religion such as Christianity. But what if some religions are false? Should a people group hold on to false religious beliefs simply because it is culturally distinctive for them? Of course not. Truth must take precedence over our cultural understanding and upbringing.
Hidden in this objection is a type of pluralism that sees every religion essentially as the same. It does not see Christianity as being the truth that all people, everywhere should follow. But if it is true Jesus has risen from the dead and reigns from heaven over the earth, then all people, in every nation must recognize him as Lord.
3. Many black Christians still use the King James Version as their final authority.
Thorpe never makes this point entirely clear. I’m not sure why he sees using the KJV of the Bible as problematic. Would Thorpe rather see black Christians use the New International Version or English Standard Version as their final authority?
I’m assuming Thorpe is referring to the exhaustively disproven theory: King James of England invented his own version of the Bible that is completely different from the original text. This claim is demonstrably false. Bible translators have at their disposal thousands of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, some of which predate King James by over 1000 years. When we study these manuscripts, we see the King James Bible is an accurate translation. This is why no Bible scholar today argues King James created a different Bible.
4. Slavery and colonialism taught black Christians to focus on religious dogma over a spiritual relationship with the creator.
I haven’t met many Christians of any race who believe Christianity teaches that they should focus on Christian doctrine instead of a relationship with God. The very purpose of Christian doctrine is to lead us into a correct relationship with our Creator. God desires we worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Doctrine is meant to guide us into truth about who God is, so we may worship God rightly. Dogma about the creator and relationship with the creator should never be separated. Christian dogma has as its intended end, a relationship with the true God.
Thorpe’s point again shows us his commitment to religious pluralism. He accepts all religious beliefs are equally valid. Therefore, one should develop one’s own personally defined, spiritual relationship with God. And, implicit in Thorpe’s point, is this is to be preferred over strict doctrinal beliefs. Of course, this pluralistic view of spirituality makes the person the center of his own religious experience. The person is then free to choose any belief about his creator.
Thorpe’s view of spirituality is problematic because it is epistemically unsustainable. If we are responsible for developing our own spirituality, how can one be sure he is worshipping the creator? What is the creator? Does the creator tell me to love all people, or does he tell me to kill all of the infidels? How do I know the spirit I worship is the creator? What if it’s a demon? If we choose to develop our own spirituality, all we are left with is some man-made deity we use to validate our own desires. There can be no certainty of who God is, no knowledge of what he wants, and no accountability for our actions.
Christian dogma is ultimately God’s truth given to a lost and confused world. It is God telling us who he is. We need God to communicate to us through his word, so we can be assured our understanding of God is accurate, and our worship is being directed to the one true God.
5. Enslaved Africans were taught to no longer pursue a spiritual relationship with their ancestors. As a result, blacks no longer value the idea of spiritual connection with their ancestors.
Is Thorpe insisting blacks pursue a spiritual relationship with their ancestors? But I thought he was against religious dogma? Seems like Thorpe thinks dogma is okay, just as long as it isn’t Christian dogma.
Additionally, based on Thorpe’s view of spirituality, how does he know we can have a spiritual relationship with our ancestors? What is he basing this religious experience on? It seems like nothing more than his personal view of spirituality. Why should anyone accept it?
I invite Thorpe to take Christianity seriously. If ancestral worship is a false religious practice, then it is not wrong for Christians to teach someone that they are engaging in false religious practice. As long as Christian truth is communicated to all people in a spirit of gentleness, Christians would simply be doing what Jesus commanded them to do (Matt. 28:19-20).
Though Christians have failed to live up to God’s commandments, this should not cause anyone to discredit Christ himself. As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:11-12). Regardless of skin color.